Emotional Distress: Hard To Bear, Difficult To Prove

Emotional Distress Lawsuit

Learn about the lawsuit process for suffering from emotional distress and why a lawyer can help you prove your case.

Emotional Distress Lawsuits

For legal purposes, emotional distress is defined as “a highly unpleasant emotional reaction (as anguish, humiliation, or fury) which results from another’s conduct and for which damages may be sought”. Two categories exist: intentional infliction of emotional distress and negligent infliction of emotional distress. Negligent infliction also has a subcategory known as a bystander action.

Unfortunately, though emotional distress is a recognized affliction — that is, it’s not “all in your head” — it is nevertheless subjective from person to person. This often makes emotional distress difficult to prove. As you might expect, juries tend to look with skepticism on plaintiffs alleging emotional distress. They may suspect that plaintiffs may be exaggerating their distress in the hope of receiving a higher compensation award.

Each state has its own laws regarding emotional distress. Many states require that you have a physical injury as well as mental and emotional anguish in order to file a lawsuit. Other states, including California, allow you file a lawsuit for emotional distress only. That is, even when you have no accompanying physical injuries.

Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress

Intentional infliction of emotional distress, often referred to as IIED, is a tort, meaning a deliberate wrongful act. To prove IIED, most jurisdictions require you to demonstrate the following:

  • That his or her conduct was outrageous
  • That the defendant committed a deliberate act
  • That his or her purpose in committing the act was to cause you emotional distress severe enough that it would adversely affect your mental health
  • That his or her outrageous act did indeed cause you to suffer such distress

In terms of the outrageousness of the defendant’s act, the “reasonable person” standard generally applies. In other words, any reasonable person, not just you, would view the defendant’s act as outrageous. Or in other words, shockingly bad or excessive.

One example of IIED is a nursing home “caregiver” telling a resident that his or her family died. They know that it’s not true but simply want to agitate the resident. Another example is someone posting false and damaging information about you online. This can rise to the level of slander or defamation. Another case is someone threatening you or your family with future harm if you do not do what they want.

Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress

Negligent infliction of emotional distress is often referred to as NIED. It means that something someone does or fails to do, while not deliberately intended to cause you harm, nevertheless does. To prove Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress for a lawsuit, most jurisdictions require you to prove the following:

  • That the defendant owed you a duty of care
  • That he or she breached that duty
  • That you suffered emotional distress as a result of the breach
  • That the defendant’s act or failure to act was the proximate cause of your emotional distress, meaning the primary cause for which the law holds him or her legally liable

One example of NIED is a doctor who misdiagnoses your cancer as something much less serious. This results in his or her failing to give you the proper medical treatment and your cancer consequently progressing to a life-threatening stage. Another example is your neighbor failing to lock the gate of the fence surrounding his or her backyard swimming pool. This then allows your child to access this attractive danger and suffering an accident or even death thereby.

Bystander Subcategory

Most jurisdictions allow you to file a lawsuit seeking emotional distress damages when you witness a horrific event. This is the case even though it does not injure you personally. In general, you must have witnessed a close family member suffer injury or death in order to prevail in your bystander-based NIED lawsuit. However, say you witnessed a drunk driver mow down several pedestrians with his or her car. The jury likely will believe that you suffered severe emotional distress by witnessing this event, even if you didn’t know any of the actual victims.

IIED and NIED Legal Process

Given that emotional distress can be difficult to prove, your wisest course of action is to seek counseling or other medical or psychiatric help if you find yourself suffering from anxiety, depression, anger control issues or any other severe symptoms.  Getting professional help and compiling a record of it, plus any medications your health care professional prescribes to help you cope, becomes evidence in your eventual lawsuit. Not to mention you would likely benefit from this treatment.

Emotional distress is real and there is no shame involved in seeking help to deal with it. Studies have shown that people who suffer a catastrophic injury such as a traumatic brain injury, spinal cord injury or amputation injury usually have psychological symptoms for at least three years following the date of their injury. Other studies show that many people involved in a motor vehicle accident exhibit psychological symptoms for 12 months or more thereafter.

Contact an Attorney

Do you believe that your emotional distress is severe enough to warrant filing a lawsuit? Your next step should be to contact a local attorney experienced in personal injury cases. Especially in the emotional distress they often cause.

As stated, emotional distress damages are more difficult to prove than physical injury damages. Because unlike a broken arm or other physical injury, the jury cannot tell by looking at you what types of distress you’re suffering or the severity of your symptoms. This is where your doctor, psychiatrist, counselor or other professional can be of immense help. His or her expert testimony can explain to the jury, in layman’s terms, the nature and severity of your distress.

Do not wait too long to contact a lawyer. Each state has its own statutes of limitation that set forth the time after the accident or other precipitating event during which you can file a lawsuit. If you miss this deadline, you likely will be unable to hold the responsible person accountable by receiving compensation from him or her.

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